Mount Vernon – The Year 1799

Washington’s Fortieth Wedding Anniversary —Two Birthday Celebrations—Wedding of Nellie Custis and Lawrence Lewis—A Gay Summer—First Dinner Alone with Mrs. Washington in Twenty Years—Bankruptcy by Hospitality—Mount Vernon Washington’s Consuming In­terest—A Luxury—The Rickety Stairway at the Polls-A Birth in the Mansion—Washington Survives His Sister and All His Brothers—Last Dinner Parties at Mount Eagle and Mount Vernon—Caught in a Storm—Last Illness—Death —Funeral.

THE year of 1799 was one of singular range and variety at Mount Vernon. It found the estate in its highest stage of development. The mansion was in perfect condition and was adorned with the taste and the trophies of Washington’s matured career. From without the admiration and ap­plause of the world centred here on its illustrious master.

As month after month slipped by the round of gayety, the number of visitors, and the events of significance were, perhaps, more numerous than in any other year of its long life. It saw the culmination of a romance in marriage, the fruition of that union in birth and, in its last month, transpired the final scene in the immortal career of which Mount Vernon was the principal setting.

The sixth day of the first month brought the fortieth anniversary of the General’s marriage to Martha Custis. If it was not celebrated, the day did not pass unnoticed by them, for Washington was not without sentiment. On a gold chain about his neck, for many years, until the end of his life and beyond, he wore a miniature portrait of his wife.

In February he was the guest of the citizens of Alexandria for their customary celebration of his birthday. “Many Manoeuvres were performed by the Uniform Corps—and an elegant Ball & supper at Night.” This was the entry in the diary for the 11th of the month. Washington was born February 11th, old style. The new calendar was in vogue shortly after, which moved his birthday up to the 22d, but the old friends clung to the old fashion, and so as long as he was with them his neighbors in the little city up river celebrated on the 11th.

His birthday was celebrated twice this year of 1799, the second time on the 22d, within the walls of his own home. There “Miss Custis was married abt Candle Light to Mr Lawe Lewis.” Washington chronicled events in deceptively few words. The wedding was in fact a brilliant occasion and was the culmination of a romance which enlisted the General’s most interested solicitude, for Nellie Custis was the object, next to his wife, of his tenderest affection. She came into his life at a time when it was apparent that his union would not be blessed with a child of his own. He adopted her and brought her to Mount Vernon, and she never knew any other father or any other home than his.

She was known and loved by every servant and slave on the place. To them as to all who came to Mount Vernon in the later years of Washington’s life, she represented the youth of the place. They had seen her grow up and watched her romance, and sensed it and gossiped it possibly before she realized it herself; for it was wholly of Mount Vernon.

Lawrence Lewis was the General’s nephew, son of his sister Betty, and a member of the household. He had, some time before, become a member of the family at the mansion for the purpose of assisting in the entertainment of the visitors, “particularly of nights,” his uncle said, “as it is my inclination to retire (and unless prevented by very particular company, I always do retire) either to bed or to my study soon after candle light.”

It was in the gardens, along the walks, and in the quiet corners of the old mansion that Lawrence and Nellie were drawn together, and love held them. He was offered another commission in the military service just before his marriage but he declined it, which caused the General to remark that his nephew had relinquished “the lapp of Mars for the Sports of Venus.”

With the arrival of spring visiting abroad began. There were the races, dinners, and Independence Day celebration in Alexandria; visits to the homes of Mrs. Washington’s granddaughters, Mrs. Law and Mrs. Peter, in Washington City and its suburb, Georgetown; tours afield to run surveys of his land about Four Mile Run between Alexandria and Washington City; and once faring forth as far as Difficult Run, some twenty miles northwest of his home-with one exception, farther than he had ventured from Mount Vernon after he retired from the public service. That exception was his visit to Philadelphia during the previous November and December, when war threatened with France and he was again called to command the armies of his country.

It was a gay summer at the mansion, if possible with more guests than ever. Though when had it been without guests? A short time before this the General had written Lear that “Mrs. Washington & myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us,—that is set down to dinner by ourselves.”

Small wonder he compared his house to “a well resorted tavern” and to the end of his life complained of being poor. Hospitality did its share to beget many a pinched pocketbook. Much less sought-after .Vir­ginians than Washington bent under the strain of Virginia hospitality, the unending procession of visitors, singly, by coach loads, and by whole families. It is said of Henry Fitzhugh of Eagle’s Nest, in Stafford County, that he found his whole substance was going to the support of the public, and in sheer economy he built Ravensworth in Fairfax County, some ten miles northwest of Mount Vernon, to be away from the well-travelled highways. Hospitality bankrupted General Henry Lee.

Washington’s wealth was never the production of his Mount Vernon farms. A luxury they remained to the end, a toy of his thoughts and plans and experiments. This year of ’99 he completed an elaborate system for the cultivation of his plantations, with tables to govern his overseers in the rotation of the crops. It covered thirty large pages closely written by his own hand, and it remains one of the testimonials to his genius for organization and detail, and the soundness of his mind and the clearness of his perceptions in the sixty-seventh year of his life.

Mount Vernon now absorbed Washington more and more, to the exclusion of other interests, and the public life receded farther into the background of memory. Though to the neighbors he was by name “the old General,” neighborly feeling eclipsed the significance of the title and to them he became merely a planter, “a clear-headed, sensible man, whose opinion was worth having, and who was well worth consulting in farming matters or on common business.”

Their traditional picture of him was a rugged old gentleman, dressed in gray clothes, a broad-brimmed hat on his head, and an umbrella under his arm, sitting his horse like a centaur, and riding afield to the extremities of his estate, slipping out of the saddle on occasion to chat with his old legionaries-Jack of Jack’s Mill, the Mill at Epsewasson of his third year above three-score years before, and Gray of Gray’s Hill, on that ridge which includes Woodlawn, the land for which was his wedding present to Nellie and Lawrence, and was called by him “a most beautiful site for a Gentlemans seat.”

When the Gentlemen of the Alexandria Assemblies sent their polite invitation to the General and his wife for their winter dances, he replied that his dancing days were over. But he drove up to town frequently for visits that included a duck dinner at mine host Gadsby’s City Hotel, a review of Captain Piercy’s Independent Blues, and the casting of his last vote. The polling place was up a flight of outside steps, so rickety that, when the huge form of the General approached their foot, the bystanders, apprehending danger to him, with silent and spontaneous accord braced the stairway with their shoulders as he mounted, and waited there until he descended.

November was a month of expectation and great preparation in the mansion. Nellie and Lawrence had been back some time since from their honeymoon. Finally their old friend Doctor Craik was summoned on the 27th, “came to Breakfast & stayed dinner,” and during the forenoon Nellie’s first child, a daughter, was born.

In the early autumn had come word of the General’s brother Charles Washington’s death. “I was the first, and am, now, the last of my father’s children by the second marriage who remain,” he said. ” When I shall be called upon to follow them, is known only to the Giver of Life. When the summons comes I shall endeavor to obey it with a good grace.” With that time in view he pointed out to Lawrence Lewis, in early December, where he intended to build a new burial vault to replace the old vault which had begun to weaken under the ferreting roots of the trees growing above it. He declared this would be the next improvement he would make, adding “for after all, I may require it before the rest.”

On Saturday, the 7th of December, Washington drove up to Mount Eagle on Great Hunting Creek and dined with Bryan Fairfax and his family. When he returned home he did not leave Mount Vernon again. There was something of a family party over Sunday, the 8th, but on Monday Lawrence Lewis and Washing-ton Custis set off for New Kent on the York, and another nephew, Howell Lewis, and his wife, departed for their home. On Wednesday he had quite a dinner party about him, including Bryan Fairfax, his son and daughter, Mrs. Warner Washington and her son Whit­ing, and Mr. John Herbert.

Washington was apparently in his usual health. Following his daily custom of riding over his farms be­tween breakfast and dinner, he was, on Thursday, caught out in a storm of snow, hail, and sleet, and returned to the mansion through a settled cold rain. He believed his greatcoat had given him sufficent protec­tion and sat down to dinner without changing his clothes.

He seemed none the worse for his experience on Friday, and during the afternoon he tramped through three inches of snow, marking trees which were to be cut down to improve the grounds between the house and the river. In the course of the day he wrote a letter of instructions to his manager, the last letter he is known to have written. And it is interesting to this chronicle that his last activities and his last written words should have been devoted, even as was his whole life, to the care of Mount Vernon.

He spent the evening with the family and appeared to be in a cheerful mood, though somewhat hoarse. The papers had been brought from the post-office and he read them aloud and commented on items of peculiar interest. Lear suggested a remedy for his cold as the General retired, but he refused it, as he never took anything for a cold, and preferred to “let it go as it came.” And so upstairs to his bedroom at the south end of the house over the library.

Between two and three o’clock in the morning (Saturday, December 14th) he wakened Mrs. Washington and confessed that he was very unwell. He would not let her get up to call assistance lest she take cold. When a servant appeared, however, Doctor Craik and Doctor Dick of Alexandria and Doctor Brown of Port Tobacco were sent for, and all arrived before four o’clock in the afternoon. They found the General suffering with a well-defined case of what was then called quinsy. Their ministrations gave no relief.

The General several times during the day expressed his belief that his end was near. “It is a debt we all must pay,” he said, and faced the inevitable with perfect resignation. His wife, his old friend Doctor Craik, his faithful secretary Lear, and the domestic servants remained in the room with him continuously.

The day dragged itself into darkness. A fire flick­ered on the hearth opposite the foot of his bed. Candles spread a soft light. About ten o’clock he whispered some directions to Lear, and when assured he was understood, added: “‘Tis well.” He did not speak again. Shortly afterward it was noticed that his breathing became much easier, and presently he felt his own pulse. In a few minutes, without struggle or pain, he breathed his last.

Riders were dispatched from Mount Vernon to the north and to the south, to notify the President of the United States, other officials, relatives and friends, of the death of General Washington.

The brick wall across the opening of the old vault above the river was torn away and the interior made ready. Mrs. Washington directed that a wooden door be built, for she said, “It will soon be necessary to open it again.” Wednesday, December 18th, was fixed for the funeral.

The ceremonial was simple. His Masonic and military friends of Alexandria and his neighbors and relatives of the countryside nearby were the only ones present. The casket rested in the portico. A schooner in the river fired minute guns, beginning about three o’clock, as the procession moved down the slope toward the tomb.

The military led the way, the musicians playing a dirge with muffled drums, followed by the clergy; then the General’s horse with his saddle, holsters, and pistols, led by two of his grooms; the body borne by Masonic and military officers; the relatives and intimate friends, Masons, the Corporation of Alexandria, and the people of the estate.

The Rev. Mr. Davis, rector of Christ Church, Alex­andria, read the service and spoke briefly. The Masons then performed their ritual, after which the body was deposited in the tomb.

So with the simplicity he would have preferred, surrounded only by his friends and his neighbors, he was laid to rest where he had lived with the fullest happiness. Mount Vernon was his home; it now became the nation’s shrine.